You might associate Indonesian cinema with Pencak Silat, a local martial art featured heavily in fight movies like Merantau and The Raid. Mike Wiluan knows we have a thirst for violence as he’s produced the likes of Headshot and Macabre, but his first directorial effort, he eschewed martial arts for barroom brawls, embracing the old spaghetti western but giving it some Indonesian spice: a “fried rice” western, if you will.
Buffalo Boys is the story of 2 brothers and their uncle, who were violently chased out of Java and exiled to America, but have returned to their homeland for revenge. The Dutch are occupying their village, forcing farmers to starve their families while growing poppies instead of rice. And those are the lucky ones: others are enslaved, tortured, and put to death, corpses left hanging on the outskirts of towns to promote obedience, severed heads displayed prominently just to rub salt in the wounds. Still the Javanese endure. But when Jamar (Ario Bayu) and Suwo (Yoshi Sudarso) reappear, they breathe a little bit of hope into air that’s been fetid with oppression for years.
Buffalo Boys is raucous and fun, with action scenes abundant, bursting with call-backs to John Ford movies of yore, but with unexpected little twists that only come with taking America out of the equation. While most cowboy movies live for the machismo true-blue American experience, this one flouts those patriotic pastiches in favour of a colonialist indictment. But while oppression breeds villains, it also cries out for heroes. In Buffalo Boys, two legends are born. And Mike Wiluan knows how to teach a history lesson while satisfying our violent urges. His camera loves finding new ways to land a punch, even as it reveals flashes of Sergio Leone, and even Tarantino.
I’m going to tell you what I loved about the movie in just a minute. First, I’m going to complain. Because the movie sets up a female character who’s a badass. She rides a bull better than any boy. And she’s deadly accurate with a bow and arrow. Sinfully refreshing from your typical damsel in distress. But then the movie fails to really use her. The role languishes, and sure the story’s a bit bloated with badassery, but this is the one I really wanted more of and was frustrated to see less. But okay, screw her. Because that last act, the glorious shoot out, it’s what we’re really all here to see. And boy gee! The fight choreography is impressive, like whoa. So Wiluan slows it down and parades it in front of us; you can practically feel the bloodspray on your face. It’s a thing of beauty, and if you’re a fan of sloppy, intense show downs, then this one is going to be straight up your alley.